Olderfleet Castle, Larne – Vikings, Invasion & Rebellion
On the east Antrim coast, just south of Larne Harbour, are the remains of Olderfleet Castle. It is in the townland of Curran and Drumaliss. The 4-storey tower house, facing out to sea, sits on the peninsula known as Curran Point. The strategic importance of the site has led to the castle changing hands many times over its turbulent history.
The Vikings and Olderfleet
The name Olderfleet is thought to have come from the time of the Viking incursions. Ulfried’s Fiord was the old Danish name for Larne Lough. The ending ‘fleet’ comes from the Norse word ‘fljot’ meaning inlet. Over the centuries the name became corrupted to Olderfleet.
“…they would draw up their long galleys, and soon named the place Ulfried’s Fiord. The later English invaders kept this name but spelled it Wolfrickford and Wolverflete. And so it became Olderfleet, and the ruins of Olderfleet Castle are there to this day”Richard Hayward In Praise of Ulster 1946
‘A Human Skeleton of Gigantic Proportions’
We have evidence that the Vikings had settlements along the coast. Hence it is likely, due to the importance of the site, that they had a fort or watch-tower here also. Cathal O’Byrne, in his book As I Roved Out, describes a discovery made in the 1840’s in the limestone quarries along the shore
“… the workmen discovered a human skeleton of gigantic proportions, together with a sword of corresponding size, and some ornaments of an antique and curious pattern, probably the remains of some Norse invader”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out (1946)
The name Larne is said to come from the Irish Latharna, meaning the territory of the descendants of Lathar. Lathar was the son of an early Celtic king, Ugaine Mor. At this time the region was densely forested and renown for good hunting, especially of wild pigs.
The first stone-built structure at this location is a tower-house built by the Scots-Irish Bisset family. This was constructed around 1250. The Bissets had to flee Scotland in a hurry, having been implicated in the murder of Patrick Comyn, Earl of Athol. Walter Bisset (Byset) was alleged to have killed the earl in his bed after being defeated by him at a tournament at Haddington in 1242.
Once in Ireland the Bisset clan received large ‘grants’ of land from the English king Henry III. Their new territory stretched from Larne to Glenarm.
Edward Bruce Invasion
In 1315 Edward Bruce from Scotland, with an army of 6,000, invaded Ireland. He landed at several points along the coast near Olderfleet Castle and was welcomed by the Bisset family. The invasion did not go as planned. When the Bruce campaign ended in failure, Olderfleet Castle was seized by the English monarchy as an important defensive position.
Olderfleet – Royal English Garrison
Throughout the sixteenth century, Olderfleet Castle is referred to as a Royal English Garrison. In 1568 Elizabeth I appointed Moses Hill as governor of Olderfleet on behalf of the English crown. This was to protect Ireland from further invasions of the Red Shanks (Scots). She did not want independent Scottish forces to the north and to the west.
“The queen considered this castle of such importance that… it is expressly covenanted that ‘the Castle of Olderfleet, shall be at her Majesty’s disposition’”Rev James O’Laverty, An Historical Account of Down and Connor, 1884
Moses Hill set about reinforcing the tower-house with further fortifications.
“Hill must have lived a good deal at Olderfleet Castle, which he doubtless strengthened and repaired, raising earthworks about it”F J Bigger, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 13 August 1907
Moses (Moyses) Hill had come to Ireland in the sixteenth century as a soldier of the Earl of Essex. The purpose of the expedition was to defeat the Irish in the province of Ulster and colonise the land with English and Scots Protestants who would be loyal to England. An ancient manuscript written by an Irish friar in 1617 describes Hill
“Moses Hill, a mere adventurer, came to Ireland a beggarman and enriched himself with the plunder of many an honest man’s homestead. This Hill was an implacable persecutor of Catholics, and an ever-willing instrument in carrying out the detestable policy of James I”Irish Friar’s Manuscript, 1617
In 1603 Hill was rewarded with a knighthood and in 1611 and was ‘granted’ the village of Cromlyn in County Down. In 1617 he was named the first ‘Provost Mareschal’ of the Province of Ulster. By the time of his death in 1629, Hill owned 2,000 acres of land in County Antrim and 40,000 in County Down as a payment for his services to the crown.
In 1650 Arthur Hill, his son by second wife Anne Grogan, changed the name Cromlyn to Hillsborough.
The MacDonnells of County Antrim
Although Olderfleet Castle was given to Moses Hill in 1568, by 1597 Olderfleet Castle was in the hands of the MacDonnell clan of County Antrim.
This came about either as part of a ransom deal or as William Pinkerton suggests the MacDonnells were:
“secretly negotiating with a treacherous warder, for the betrayal of that castle. And, in fact, only two days after the date of the Constable’s letter, the warder ‘sold’ Olderfleet to Macdonnell”Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 5 1857
O’Laverty claims that there were two warders involved in the plot – Robert Strawbridge and John Wright. The following year the McDonnells dismantled Olderfleet Castle stone by stone.
Olderfleets New Tower-House
Another tower-house (the current remains) was constructed on the same site in the early seventeenth century.
On a 1610 map it is noted as Coraine (Curran) Castle. Curran comes from the Gaelic word carrian meaning ‘a hoop’ and reflects the curved, scythe-shaped, form of the peninsula. The bay at Larne was now protected by three castles Olderfleet, Curraine and Tchevet.
Some historians contend that the remnants we have here are not Olderfleet but either Curran Castle or a separate fortified warehouse.
In 1621 vast tracts of land including Olderfleet were given to Arthur Chichester as a reward for his barbarous campaign of what would now be labeled as ethnic cleansing in the north of Ireland.
“I spayre neither house, corne nor creature…sparing none of what quality, age or sex so ever; beside many burned to death, we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatever we find”Arthur Chichester
“The date of the grant (of Olderfleet) was November 20th, 1621. It confers on Chichester, the Castle of Olderfleet. And its lands, 180 acres, the Friary lands, 15 acres, the spiritual commodities, whatsoever of the townlands of Olderfleet, Blackcave, and Grillamhill (Greenlands), and a ferry from Olderfleet to Islandmagee – all, at the yearly rent of £1 6s 8d”Rev James O’Laverty, An Historical Account of Down and Connor, 1884
In the 1640’s the Earl of Strafford sent orders to the Earl of Ormond to employ his men “in building a fort of earth at Olderfleet, for the better security of His Majesty’s ships, in their winter moorings in that harbour”.
A regular stream of Scottish families arrived at this spot on the coast during the Plantation. Larne is only 25 miles across the Irish Sea from mainland Scotland.
In the eighteenth century the port of Larne saw many Scots-Irish head in the opposite direction, as they emigrated to the USA. A monument in Larne’s Curran Park commemorates the Friends Goodwill, the first emigrant ship to sail from Larne to Boston in May 1717.
The United Irishmen
In 1798 Olderfleet is documented as being the first government-held stronghold in County Antrim to be taken by the United Irishmen.
At 2am on 7th June 1798 the mainly Presbyterian rebels, engaged with the royalist forces. The surprise attack appears to have caused disarray, for the garrison fled.
However, instead of consolidating their position, the republicans, who were mostly farmers and townsfolk, marched to join Henry Joy McCracken’s men to fight in the ‘Battle of Antrim’.
The battle went badly – resulting in the defeat of the United Irishmen.
In 1823, due to ongoing financial concerns, the 2nd Marquis of Donegall, George Augustus Chichester, sold Olderfleet Castle on a permanent lease to William Agnew. George Augustus Chichester’s life-long obsession with gambling was to lead to huge debts and further loss of property – See The story of Ormeau Park and it’s ‘Lost’ Mansion.
Agnew owned the Kilwaughter estate in County Antrim. He was succeeded by his son James, who built Cairncastle Lodge in 1839. However, due to ‘impecunious circumstances’ Agnew was obliged to put Olderfleet up for sale in 1865.
The lease was bought by James Chaine of Ballycraigy.
The following year Chaine also bought Larne harbour, Curran Point and Drumalis from the Agnews for the sum of £20,000. The Chaines were a wealthy family who had made their fortune in the linen and textile industries.
Larne Infrastructure Improvements
James Chaine set about improving the structure and facilities at the port. In 1872 he reinstated the Larne to Stranraer (Scotland) passenger ferry service. In 1873 he established a profitable transatlantic mail route, Glasgow-Larne-New York.
Chaine also financed an extension to the railway network, adding lines from Larne-Ballyclare, Larne-Ballymena and Larne-Belfast.
To accommodate the extra passengers brought to the town James Chaine built the Olderfleet Hotel on Larne seafront in 1878. This was a grand 3-storey building designed by architect Samuel Patrick Close.
In 1874 James Chaine was elected as Conservative MP for Antrim.
Chaine’s Death and the Chaine Memorial Tower
James Chaine retained his seat until his death on 4th May 1885. Chaine died of pneumonia aged 43.
James Chaine was interred in a specially constructed burial mound on the coast just outside Larne. It is recorded that he was buried in an upright position facing the Irish Sea.
In 1888, thanks to public subscription, the Chaine Memorial Tower was built in James’s honour. It is a replica of an ancient Irish round tower and is placed at the entrance of Larne harbour. Composed of Irish granite it is 27m high with a conical roof. It is 7.5m wide at its base.
In March 1899 the tower was converted into a lighthouse by the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
“If you have made the steamer crossing between Larne and Stranraer you must have gazed upon the magnificent round tower on the western side of Larne Lough, a little way out from the quays… it is Larne’s memorial, as long as it weathers the ravages and laws of nature, to the man who put the port of Larne on the map – James Chaine”Belfast Telegraph 29th November 1937
Olderfleet Castle Today
Over the years the ancient castle of Olderfleet has fallen into further disrepair and is now extremely ruined. Only two of the 1m thick walls remain standing.
The openings at ground level were for guns or cannons while the narrower recessed windows were for musketry. Inside the interior walls are still visible
“The place has long been worked as a quarry to provide stones for buildings of adjacent walls and outhouses, and there is little of the old castle left, save one tall gable and parts of the thick walls in which a few loop-holes and window spaces yet remain”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946
Little remains of this seventeenth century stronghold and the area around it has been built up with the industrial trappings of a working port. However, the stone-built masonry does still evoke a sense of past importance. When viewed from across the lough it must have been an impressive and daunting sight.
Olderfleet Castle can be found on the Coastguard Road, near Larne Port’s harbour. It is free to visit.
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